Tunisia’s Political Earthquake

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s Note: The following article previews the author’s January 2011 analysis paper titled “Political Violence in North Africa: The Perils of Incomplete Liberalization.”

The dramatic political earthquake in Tunisia vindicates those who have been warning that the Arab world has entered a dangerous pre-revolutionary stage. Across the region, popular rage over economic deprivation and endemic corruption continues to fester. The spate of attempted public suicides in Algeria, Mauritania, and Egypt is another reminder of the despair that reigns in the region.

As the whirlwinds of moral revolt continue to spread, the pressing question is no longer whether the status quo in the Arab world is sustainable but how fast it will crumble. The historic breakthrough in Tunisia may go down in Arab history as the beginning of the end: the end of cosmetic changes to a corrupt political and economic order, and the beginning of a gradual transition to an uncertain “something else.” Whether, and how, that transition occurs depends a great deal on how the new Tunisian political experiment develops. While the promise of systemic transformation is real, the potential for further violence looms large. The Algerian catastrophe is no doubt a stark reminder of what can still go wrong in Tunisia. In 1988, massive popular protests over corruption and unemployment in major Algerian cities forced authorities to initiate a bold political transition. Algeria was transformed, almost overnight, from an authoritarian single-party state into a democratizing one. Unfortunately, political reforms were ill thought-out and poorly executed, paving the way for a ruthless power struggle between authoritarian incumbents and newly emboldened aspirants, which dragged the country into its tragic decade of violence.

Algeria’s descent into chaos was a death knell for political change in other countries, which took the Algerian civil war as a cautionary tale of what happens when democratization proceeds too quickly. Some, like the Moroccan monarchy, preempted deteriorating economic conditions in the 1990s by ushering in a new era of liberalization that made the country more open and less repressive. But most of its neighbors relied on partial economic reforms as an antidote to mounting popular frustration. In the wake of Tunisia’s revolt, similar preemptive moves can be expected this year in Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan. State subsidies will be introduced to reduce prices, in addition to salary increases for public-sector employees. However, such economic palliatives, along with half-hearted efforts at liberalization, will neither produce the needed economic growth to contain popular rage nor satisfy public demands for greater accountability.

Already, North African states seem to be learning the wrong lessons from the Tunisia’s extraordinary popular uprising that brought down one of the Arab world’s most repressive leaders. The consensus seems to be that lack of jobs and soaring food prices triggered both the revolution in Tunisia and the massive unrest that shook Algeria in recent weeks. But the bitter complaints of ever-increasing economic inequality, rising poverty, severe housing shortages, and corruption are nothing new. Violent labor protests already erupted in Tunisia in 2008, and growing social unrest has become routine in Algeria, with riots erupting regularly during the last 5 years. 

Price hikes in food commodities were simply the final trigger that transformed pent-up anger into outright revolt. While it is undeniable that North African youths are becoming increasingly restless, the pertinent question today is how they will channel their frustrations in the absence of legal, political outlets. Indeed, in the absence of credible political parties to represent them, young, frustrated Arabs may turn to other means of changing their dire situation. Some, as in Algeria, will continue rioting in the streets until a galvanizing event triggers either political change or another round of wide-scale violence. Others will continue trying to cross the treacherous straits of Gibraltar on boards of wooden pateras towards Europe. A small minority will turn to militant movements, as the increase in terrorist activity in the Maghreb illustrates.

The status quo in North Africa is untenable, particularly now that millions of people have seen the inspiring images of everyday Tunisians taking to the streets and toppling one of the most fearsome police states in the region. The Tunisian revolt will not produce an immediate domino-like fall of autocrats, but it has the potential to initiate a process of real, substantive political change in the region. As Rami Khoury writes, “Tunisia will be seen in retrospect more like the Solidarity movement in Poland that sparked a decade-long process of slow transformation in the Soviet satellites, than the fall of the Berlin Wall that ushered in revolutions across Eastern Europe.”  

How this process unfolds will depend to a large extent on how successful the Tunisian transition to democracy is and how quickly North African regimes are able to adapt their governance models to keep pace with popular demands. For now, the Moroccan monarchy is the only regime to have initiated meaningful processes of economic and social change. It is also the only one which enjoys relatively wide popular support. The danger remains, however, that political reforms have so far lagged behind the country’s socio-economic modernization. Unless further reforms to deepen democratic accountability are taken, the country is unlikely to escape the protests raging in other Arab countries.

The United States and Europe have a particularly important role to play in the post-Ben Ali era. It is imperative that they use their influence and leverage to hold the new Tunisian government accountable to its promises, by pushing for substantive democratic reforms and respect for the rule of law. The failure of the Tunisian experiment would be a missed opportunity, with dire consequences for both the region and Western interests. Subordinating democratic reforms and basic human rights principles to short-term interests is no longer a viable strategy to secure stability in the Maghreb and beyond. If half-hearted efforts of individual governments and the international community continue indefinitely, social unrest and political violence are only likely to increase further.